In Food + Drink

What It’s Like Inside Auckland’s Willy Wonka-Style, Waterfront Eatery

While dining inside a sugar refinery may sound like a scene straight out of fantasy film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Sugar at Chelsea Bay offers a much more sophisticated experience.

Through the grand gates of the renowned Chelsea Sugar Works on Auckland’s North Shore is a light-filled and stylish space sans small orange people, chocolate rivers and life-sized candy.

But while there may be no whimsical creatures or features here, the café and restaurant still provides an escapism with its tasteful character and charm.

Behind the establishment is Auckland couple Aaron Carson and Francesca Mazza, who have splashed their distinguishable paintbrush on everything that Sugar exudes – from the food to the fit-out.

“What Fran and I do, really, is create environments that people fall in love with,” Carson says. “We try to curate the whole experience for our customers; from delivering a service that people deserve and creating food that tastes amazing. Each element is fine-tuned so guests feel really special and get a sense that we care.”

Carson and Mazza’s signature style features in multiple Auckland restaurants that they have to their name: Winona Forever, Friday I’m In Love and Fang to name just a few. Each one an extension of their colourful personalities and a reflection of their love for good food and entertaining.

“What I think of with food is much more than simply what we are eating and rather about what happens when people get together to enjoy food,” Carson says.

“Eating the finest meal on the planet by yourself in a dreary room will still be a misery plate no matter what. Sharing food with others and enjoying the whole experience of people coming together is what it’s all about for Fran and me.”

Sugar is an absolute testament to Carson and Mazza’s vision; the 80-seated establishment designed entirely by the pair themselves is far from lacklustre. Inside the modern glass-front pavilion is sleek polished concrete floors, timber wall panels and ceilings, candy-coloured cushions, hanging glass pendant lights in hues to match, and a guaranteed good time.

Sugar at Chelsea Bay

“It’s a very special place both historically and geographically,” Carson says of his eatery within the historic 130-year-old factory that processes around 200,000 tonnes of the sweet stuff annually for worldwide shipment.

“Aesthetically, the atmosphere is cool and sophisticated, but it’s also a busy and bustling space full of energy and motion. There’s a juxtaposition between this modern space and the history of the sugar works which makes for a nice intersection.”

The sugar factory hasn’t always been accessible to the public and was once only ever to be enjoyed at a distance as an iconic pastel-peach landmark resting graciously on the shoreline of the city’s northern suburb, Birkenhead, and overlooking the Waitemata Harbour.

Its mystery and allure piqued many imagination the but since opening its gates in 2018, guests were given a glimpse inside with factory tours, cooking classes, and the fanciful eatery where Carson says he “fully expects to see a unicorn trotting across the lawn” when arriving to work in the mornings.

Sugar at Chelsea Bay

“Sugar differs from anywhere else in that it’s an experience unto itself. The grounds are gorgeous, the view is incredible, the sugar works have so much history – and that’s before you have even entered the eatery,” he says.

The couple describes the all-day menu as “fresh, modern and super tasty.” It includes favourites including Southern Fried Chicken French Toast and the Soft Shell Crab Benedict. There’s Coffee Supreme and Harney & Sons tea to sip while the sun’s rising and an extensive wine and beer list including tipples from New Zealand and Australia for a little later.

Mazza, a chef by trade, ensures the menu is updated seasonally and the front cabinet bursting with lamingtons, jam and cream doughnuts, paleo chocolate tarts, vegan peanut butter brownies and other sweet cravings.

Sugar at Chelsea Bay

A centre-point to most dishes is, of course, the restaurant’s namesake, which isn’t just highlighted in a striking neon sign on the interior wall, or processed merely a stone’s throw away. The ingredient is used in the bakery on display within the café, giving guests a visual taste of what’s involved in creating the decedent dishes on offer.

“Chelsea is an incredibly iconic heritage brand and we use their products every day; in most cases we did before we even opened Sugar,” Carson says. “Recipes just work better when you use good quality ingredients; it really makes a difference, especially with baking.”

Rather surprisingly, the couple doesn’t describe themselves as having much of a sweet tooth, yet they’ve certainly found their sweet spot with Sugar.

(All images: Sugar at Chelsea Bay / supplied)

Published 20 January, 2020